The Abroad Life

This is a Q&A between one of my darling mentees, Gbemisola, and I reflecting on her time completing college here in America but then returning to Nigeria. We will explore the challenges she faced as a teenaged Nigerian introduced to America and the influences living in America had on her as she returned to begin her professional career in Nigeria.

Q: What was growing up in Nigeria like for you?

A: Growing up in Nigeria I had a comfortable and very fun childhood, one I still remain grateful for. I grew up in a Christian-Pentecostal home, where church was not optional and Friday night vigils were standard. I did not mind this; I just went with the flow. From what my mother tells me, and what I remember about me growing up in Nigeria, I was a pretty good kid, except that one time I stood on the toilet tank, broke it, and injured myself. Another time I got my head stuck in the burglary proof at church, and when I tumbled over the couch and chipped my tooth, and a couple of other unfortunate events.

I may have been a little spoiled. Being the fourth out of five children, I think, is what led to that. Fast forward to secondary school (high school for y’all abroad folks), I like to think I matured out of my initially slightly bratty ways. Lagos was and is a struggle. Getting to school in the morning was war as we would spend hours in traffic dragging it out with other vehicles. To make matters worse the roads were mostly bad but it got even worse during the rainy season.

Eventually, we moved to Abuja where I completed my last three years of secondary school. Life was calmer.

Q: Were you familiar with America?

A: I watched a lot of American television growing up and listened to mostly American songs. I remember listening to Avril Lavigne’s Complicated so much even my mother could sing it. Everyone knew Gbemi was going to America.

I completed secondary school and started to hustle for “the abroad life”, took the SATs, TOEFL, and applied to a couple of schools in the U.S. My family was extremely supportive, but I cannot say that I pushed myself because of them. Up until this day, I cannot explain. nor do I understand, how I sometimes get this burst of tenacity or drive to want something and push myself to get it.

Q: What was it like living in a foreign country?

A: So now I’m in America, freshman year! What are the odds that I would meet my namesake on the first day of college? Gbemi A., if you are reading this, thanks for the good times!

Because I grew up quite comfortable in Nigeria, the America I had been longing for my whole life actually did not seem all that special to me. There was a day I missed the bus by literally 10 seconds! I was running down the road as the bus was driving away. A white couple in their car witnessed the whole running-and- bus-driving-away drama and they offered to take me to the next bus stop. I’m recollecting the event now and stating that they were white, but if I had recounted it then, I probably wouldn’t have thrown in the white bit. I think they were just being nice to me.

If this were to happen in Nigeria and it was a white couple, if it was broad daylight and the glasses of the car were not tinted, I would enter. If it was a black couple, that one I would enter if it was broad daylight.

I am more aware of race now that I’m in Nigeria than when I lived in the States, which is upside down, or should be the other way around, or at least be as a result of me living in “the abroad”.

Q: Would you say you ever experienced racism while living in America?

A: I don’t think I ever experienced racism. I’ve concluded that I just didn’t see colour, and not in a noble “I-love-all” way. I just couldn’t be bothered what race you were — I was somewhat self-absorbed.

Which brings me to another memory, I had to see someone at my college’s International Students Office but I had to go through a black woman and she didn’t treat me well. I felt quite bad after interacting with her. At that point, I didn’t look at it as, “But you’re a black woman. You should have treated me better based on the fact that I’m also black.” Looking back now I’m thinking that, but at the moment it was just, “This is a terrible person or a terrible human being.” In retrospect, people have stuff they are dealing with and everyone is different. That’s just how some people are and I try to just be the best person that I can be.

Q: How has it been for you living back in Nigeria and how did your education in America help you?

A: Schooling abroad is no longer an immediate gateway or ticket to landing that massive salary earning job upon return to the motherland.

When I returned I was still writing in American but because we use British English in Nigeria I cannot be writing with American English. My preference is actually to write American.

Now that I am back living and working in Lagos, I appreciate the comforts of “the abroad” that I took for granted. In my mind I was just there for school, I made a couple of friends along the way, there was church, and that was pretty much it for me.

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